Inaugural celebration

Symposium Eyes Past, Future of Catholic Higher Ed.

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

Catholic higher education faces a challenging but potentially rewarding future, and has much to offer as a wellspring of academic and spiritual development, agreed panelists at the symposium "Remembering a Past - Imagining a Future: Catholic Higher Education," on Oct. 17 in Robsham Theater.

"It is clear that American Catholic colleges and universities have much to think about as the next century approaches," said the panel's moderator, Harvard University President Neil L. Rudenstine, at the conclusion. "But it is also evident these institutions, and Boston College in particular, have a lot to contribute."

Fr. J. Bryan Hehir of the Harvard Divinity School makes a point at the Oct. 17 symposium. Also pictured is the event's moderator, Harvard President Neil Rudenstine. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
The symposium, which drew several hundred members and guests of the Boston College community, was part of the two-day celebration surrounding the inauguration of University President William P. Leahy, SJ. Fr. Leahy offered a brief welcome to the participants and audience, describing the symposium as "a crucial discussion about the mission and identity of Catholic higher education."

College of Arts and Sciences Dean J. Robert Barth, SJ, introduced the panelists, New York Times Religion Editor Peter Steinfels, Harvard Divinity School Professor Fr. J. Bryan Hehir and University of Chicago Law Professor Martha C. Nussbaum. Each gave an overview of current and future issues facing Catholic higher education, then answered questions from members of the audience.

Although Catholic educational institutions have been greatly affected by events and trends of the past few decades, panelists said, they have largely retained their distinctive tradition of blending faith and reason, and placing knowledge in a moral context. Supporters of Catholic education must maintain an open dialogue, however, as they address the task of serving an increasingly pluralistic, technologically sophisticated society, panelists said.

Fr. Hehir, who explored the prevailing themes in the history of Catholic education, identified roles for Catholic institutions in illuminating major societal issues, such as the balance between public and private life or the ethical aspects of science.

"These kinds of issues, from bioethics to foreign policy," Fr. Hehir said, "are the kinds of public choices that a university marked by reason and faith, Church and world, knowledge and power, would be willing to participate in."

Steinfels spoke about the concerns over American Catholic higher education's identity in an increasingly secular academic environment, and a diverse society. Yet while Catholic educators have acknowledged such concerns, he said, they have not indicated any desire to forsake academic freedom or embrace policies and procedures that isolate non-Catholics.

Catholic higher education should aspire to a "centered pluralism," Steinfels said, which promotes interaction and conversation, not simple co-existence, among diverse groups. Boston College, he said, "will have many years to address this question and I would hope they do so boldly, without trepidation."

Using the University Academic Planning Council report as an occasional reference, Nussbaum pointed to specific areas of discussion, and some conflict, at many Catholic institutions. Citing the promotion of greater understanding of non-Western cultures and the lives of minorities, Nussbaum said Catholic institutions can both contribute to and learn from such dialogues, which are at the heart of preparing students for a global community.

"It really is true that questions of moral value, about what human beings are, what they need and should pursue," Nussbaum said, "are central to major Catholic institutions in ways they usually are not in secular institutions ... In Catholic institutions, it is common to find discussions of such ethical questions in the economics and political science departments, as well as in philosophy and theology."

During the question-and-answer period, panelists discussed the place of undergraduates in Catholic education, and how an institution's Catholic character might be reflected in the way it considers candidates for faculty or staff positions.

Return to Oct. 31 menu

Return to Chronicle home page